Finally—finally!—after two years in Korea of watching buses and taxis swerve from lane to lane to sidewalk to two wheels and back unscathed—finally, in my last hours in the country, my bus got hit by a taxi. Feeling accomplished, I started my journey back to Amurica. Appropriately, given the bus-taxi augury, the trip was not the smoothest I’ve ever experienced: a five-hour delay to start things off catatonically, fourteen hours in my least favorite airport (Shanghai Pudong), and ten hours of a little Chinese boy screaming and kicking my seat on our way over the Pacific. But I finally—finally—arrived, albeit bleary-eyed and greasy-haired, in Chicago.
Once at baggage claim, I began looking for a likely someone from whom I could borrow a cell phone to warn my parents of my arrival in the country. I once used about six different Thai people’s phones on a bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai trying to call a missionary’s number. I spoke not a bit of Thai, no one else spoke English, and the missionary had accidentally given me the wrong number. Calling my parents here in the States, I figured, would be no problem.
The first person I asked was a taller woman whose husband stood next to her. She gave my greasy face and toothpaste-stained pink shirt a once-over and strained grimace, but no phone.
“I don’t loan my cell out to strangers.”
After five more people declined, I began to wonder if I looked even more unwashed that I realized. Finally I got a hesitant yes from a girl about my age that had clearly spent 4 not 40 hours in the clouds, judging by her shiny hair and makeup.
“Only if I dial the number for you,” Shiny-hair said, frowning at me.
“Anything. Thanks so much. I probably couldn’t even work a phone like that.” She tapped the number I gave into her iPhone, but held it back.
“Do you mind switching places with me?” she asked.
“Sure.” I did, baffled, and she handed me the phone.
“I’ve heard people run off with these things,” she explained.
“I should have given you my passport for collateral,” I offered, but Shiny-hair shrugged it away, gesturing to her power position over not only my passport, but my violin, wallet and computer. I made a mental note not to rob her.
The experts call where I’m at right now “reverse culture shock, but I’ve never really believed in culture shock to begin with. In my two years working for a Korean university, there have been plenty of times I’ve wanted to scream at my boss, but nothing that shocked me. In one memorable department meeting, she laughingly announced (uncontested) she was likely to contract cancer from all the stress foreign teachers gave her. Baffling, such moments undoubtedly are, but shocking? Not really. Everyone has their opinions after all, and every country has its idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it’s misnamed. Culture Baffle, it ought to be called.
I was Reverse Culturally Baffled last week walking through my sister’s trim, manicured neighborhood. The playground sign near her house advised Indiana suburbia,
NO guns or hunting allowed.
“Do people use guns around here?” I asked my sister looking between the cornfields and the retention pond to the perfect houses stacked next to one another.
“Yup,” my sister said. “One of the girls in my Bible study jogs with a gun strapped to her back.”
On Yeongdo, my island in Korea known as one of the slummiest areas in the city, I frequently went for midnight walks. As a monolingual English-speaker, I was in competition for the scariest thing around—the other competitors being bus drivers and the pack of undersized wild dogs that sometimes patrolled the university. I’m not even sure the police had guns.
Coming home is great. Dinner with my parents, tennis in the park, grass and space and stars at night and getting to drive on the right side of the road and being able to ask for directions or make the tired worker at the bank laugh instead of look terrified that she might have to try to speak English. But it’s also baffling. Guns remind me of the safety of Korea. Begging through half the passengers from my plane for 30 seconds on their cell phone reminded me of that bus ride across Thailand.
At first I was scared even to leave my seat. What if someone stole something out of my bag? What if I got off at the rest stop and the driver forgot me? I didn’t belong on that bus. I read my Kindle and watched the rice paddies go by as the Thais chattered around me. Flip flops, ratty purses, cheap manicures. Prepaid cell-phones with dusty rubber keys. How in the world would I ever get anyone to lend me their cell phone? Easy. When I asked, everyone obliged. Willing verging on eager, dialing the number for me when it didn’t work the first time. The man across the aisle from me woke me up around midnight when I almost missed my stop.
Maybe for Reverse Culture Baffle, like jet lag, it takes a day to adjust for every time zone through which you travel. Give me three more days, Amurica, and I’m sure it’ll be good to see you.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).